The other women in the cell eyed me suspiciously when the guard deposited me back in the cell. I could already tell that I’d been ostracized. All it took was me opening my mouth to become an “other.”
“What did you tell him?” one particularly brawny woman asked as the handsome Verian strode back down the corridor. “Are you betraying our world?”
“He just tried to scare some sense into me, that’s all,” I mumbled. “I would never betray Earth.”
The woman nodded, but she looked unconvinced. “Sure.”
The rest of the afternoon passed in silence until a sudden bell sounded and the inmates down the hall, women who had been imprisoned much longer than we had, began to cheer. The commotion made the women in my cell look about with fright, but soon we were aware of the cause of celebration. A Verian man, though he was much stouter and about three inches shorter than the first guard (and, not to mention, far less handsome), came to the door of our cells and pressed a button, opening them all at once and releasing us into the hallway.
“You will follow protocol at all times,” he ordered. “You will follow the rest down to the dining hall and find the tables with your cell numbers marked upon them. Wait there for your meals to be served.”
The doors to our cells suddenly opened with a loud clank, and the hallway was immediately flooded with other female bodies, all of us dressed in the same dreary charcoal gray bodysuits. We pushed and shoved our way forward until, inch by inch, we made it to the dining hall.
I don’t know what I was expecting when we got there, but it certainly wasn’t the ridiculously beautiful architecture of a cathedral, paired with the horribly drab conditions of the shoddy prison tables. Each table was octagonal, and about thirty stools surrounded it. I waited until everybody had been seated at the table marked Cell 3 before taking my place.
The voice of the first guard made my heart nearly leap out of my chest, and I looked up, agitated yet mesmerized by his presence. His silver eyes flashed onto me, then moved quickly along over the heads of the other women in the room. The excited chatter of the other women died down, and we all stared at him quietly, waiting for him to speak.
“My name is Zaine Volaire, but you are to call me Yul, or Yul Volaire. Never, under any circumstances, are you to call me by my first name unless you are looking forward to lavatory duty. Is that understood?”
The women nodded and mumbled their comprehension and Zaine continued to speak.
“The meals will work accordingly. You will stay seated. You are not to move or to speak to anybody but your cell mates. The Pelin will bring the meals to each table in an orderly fashion. You are not to eat until it is clear you are observing proper Verian etiquette. When the bell rings, then you may all begin to eat. Is that understood?”
Again, mumbles and nods, and soon the room was filled with a captivating aroma and floating plates were weaving between the tables. I had to look twice to realize that it was just a trick of the eyes. In reality, there were small Pelin men and women carrying plates high above their hairy heads. It almost made me laugh. Being in so strange a world made me suspend my disbelief. I almost felt as if anything was possible.
“Wow,” I couldn’t help but breathe when the plate was suddenly in front of me. All the women at my table seemed to share the sentiment, and we gazed down at our plates in awe.
The food was so beautiful, and it smelled amazing. We were all so used to living on the few rations we were allowed that it had been years since any of us had enjoyed a whole plate of food like this.
Not only that, but it was delicious, hand-prepared food unlike anything that we received in our baskets of rations. Most of what we were used to eating came from metallic pouches that had the food ready to serve inside. You could heat it up if you wished, but most people didn’t. It was considered common courtesy to eat cold food and save the energy for the air forces.
“Do you all remember what to do? If not, could our veteran prisoners please show the rookies?” Zaine said, though his tone was more commanding than it was asking.
Each of us held our utensils in the air and waited until everybody had been served before a collective shout of
It seemed oddly reverent considering what barbarians we had always believed the Verians were. We weren’t allowed to let the plates touch the tabletop below us, and had to maintain a very specific posture to eat in. I felt silly trying to eat like a Verian, but if I wanted to get a taste of that delicious smelling food, I would just have to play along.
“Good,” Zaine said, his masculine voice pleasant with approval. “Now…you may eat.”
The cheering commenced once again from the women who had clearly been in the prison system longer than we had been, and the ghost of a smile flickered across Zaine’s lips. I was almost too caught up in the mysterious masculinity of his face to take my first bite but quickly realized my error when his eyes narrowed at me.
I looked away quickly and brought the food to my mouth, and a sudden explosion of flavors shocked me deeply. The nuances of spices and flavor were something most of us didn’t have the luxury of enjoying for most of our lives, but we had heard plenty about it from the older people in our Zones.
Now, experiencing it for ourselves for the first time left most of us in rapture, while the women who had been imprisoned longer chattered, almost as if they were oblivious to the delicious feast in front of them, but I knew that couldn’t be true. They had cheered at the chance to leave their cells and enjoy a meal.
“Ten more minutes!” Zaine shouted over the clamor of the other girls.
“What?!” I exclaimed on behalf of all the shocked and disappointed expressions of the other women at my table.
Zaine’s eyes focused in on me, and I felt a chill raise through my spine as his handsome features darkened.
“Ten minutes,” he said, slowly and deliberately, as if trying to make me feel stupid. I glared at him but said nothing else. As much as I wanted to fight it, the consequences wouldn’t be worth it. And if everybody else got punished on my behalf, I didn’t know how I would survive the rest of our time locked up together.
He grinned, satisfied with my silence, and a hot rage flamed up inside of me. There was nothing more infuriating than a man on a power trip.
We scarfed our food down as quickly as we could before Zaine made a shrill sound with something dangling around his neck. It looked like a tooth of some kind with a little hole in it, and his silver eyes glittered from me to the rest of the women in the room. “Meal time is over. Return to your cells.”
The older prisoners groaned their complaints, but Zaine said nothing. He turned his back on us and disappeared from the room as a group of Pelin men ushered the women from their seats and down the corridor.
My eyes searched for Zaine, for some reason hoping, in vain, to catch one last glimpse of him. But the hallways were too crowded with bodies, and as soon as we were filtered into the proper cells, the Pelin began to do a head count. Zaine was nowhere in sight, and I sighed, confused by my disappointment.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the brawny woman asked as soon as we made it to the cell and the guards disappeared down the corridor. She shoved me hard against the wall, and everybody stood back to watch. “Are you trying to get us all killed?”
“I don’t want to hear it!” the woman exclaimed. “If you fuck up again, even just one more time, I swear, I’m going to-”
“Casey, calm down!”
Suddenly, the woman wasn’t pinning me any longer, and I took a deep breath, glaring at Casey’s back as she was pulled away by a small woman with worried features.
“You shouldn’t bully people like that in here. Do you know what they would do if they caught you? Don’t you get why we’re here in the first place?”
Casey glowered at the ground. “She’s going to screw all of us!”
“You know she won’t,” the smaller woman said, putting a hand on Casey’s shoulder. “We’re here because of Project V. They need us here. If they kill all of us off, then they’re just screwing themselves over. Why would they do that when there’s a war? They need whatever they can get. Otherwise the whole thing is pointless.”
“Yeah…” Casey said reluctantly.
“Just let it go.”
I watched the two women walk to the far side of the cell and leave me alone without another word. I knew that the smaller woman wasn’t trying to protect me; she was trying to protect her friend. Still, it made me feel very grateful that she had intervened. The last thing I needed was Zaine to come in and see that I was getting into even more trouble.
Zaine. Thoughts of the handsome Verian took my mind back to the strange room he had taken me to earlier that day. I had been certain that he was going to beat me, or worse, but all he had done was sit me down and give me a stern lecture. I wasn’t sure how I had gotten off so easily, but I was grateful. That was for sure.
It was almost disappointing, in a way, to have him march me back to my cell without anything more meaningful being exchanged between us. What was this morbid attraction I felt toward my captor? Likely it was nothing more than just temporary insanity. Being kidnapped must wreak havoc on the brain. It would be better not to explore the feelings that arose.
“Do you think there’s any way out of here?”
The question caught my interest. A group of women about a foot away from me were whispering urgently to one another, desperate for some chance of escape.
“No, there’s no way. Even if we got out, how would we make it back to Earth?”
“There’s got to be something we can do.”
“Might as well crush those hopes before they crush you!” Casey announced. Apparently, she had heard the conversation from her stance on the other side of the cell. “It’s dangerous to hope for something that can’t happen. Don’t you get it? The Verians won. And we are their prizes. We have no choice but to accept the situation at face value and move on with our lives. Quit dreaming.”
I felt a pang of pain in my chest at the deflated expression on the women’s faces. If they truly wanted to escape, then they would have to take all things into consideration. It was true. But did Casey have to be so cruel about it? I couldn’t stand it when people wanted to rain on other people’s ideas and hopes, no matter how impossible they might be.
“We’d never get off this planet. And as long as we’re here, they would find us.”
This time it wasn’t Casey who spoke, and everybody looked at me in surprise. I didn’t realize that I’d said anything out loud. The stress was really getting to me. I shifted nervously before continuing my thought.
“Which means if we did escape, we would have to survive on this planet without being discovered until we could build or take a ship back to Earth. Do you think we could do that?”
I wanted to believe that if we all banded together, that anything was possible. I wanted the light to come back to the eyes of the women who had been plotting. But all my voice served to do was hush the rest of the people in my cell. They turned their backs on me, each of them a little bit more than sick of my shenanigans. They wouldn’t let the local troublemaker have any part in their dreams.
At first, I thought it might be lonely, as it had been on Earth, being stuck in a cell with so many people who hated me. But as the rest of the day wore on, it seemed more of a blessing. Those who spoke to each other fought, inevitably, until there was drama happening on all sides of the cell. At least this way, I would be able to have the quiet I needed. Just because the other women gave up on a plan of action didn’t mean that I had to. I could figure out a way out of this mess, and if the others didn’t want in on it, then they weren’t worth the freedom anyway.
I tried to be on my best behavior over the next couple of weeks. It was crucial that I did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get the chance I needed to observe the innerworkings of the prison system we were a part of. Without a deep understanding of our surroundings, I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere close to achieving my goals and putting my plan into action.
“Yula Lawrence,” Zaine said one day, standing close behind me as we made our way through the swarming bodies in the hallway. I blushed, heat coursing through my body as his body was pushed into mine from behind, and I had a small awakening to the dense muscles hidden beneath his uniform.
“Yes?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. I don’t think he understood what I was feeling because he smiled kindly down at me.
“You need not be afraid if you are going to behave,” he said. “I’ve noticed that you are doing much better lately, and I wanted to acknowledge that. Well done, Earthling. Isn’t it better to keep the peace when peace can be kept?”
His reference to peace made my body grow tense as I remembered the horrific stories of war that the soldiers spread throughout the Zones. We weren’t allowed to repeat them to each other, but the grisly details had a way of staying stuck in your mind.
“Peace is quite an ideal to maintain,” I said, not committing either way to his question.
“An ideal, yes,” Zaine’s masculine voice rumbled from behind me as we moved slowly through the corridor. “One that I think you shall find quite suits you. Earthlings have such a violent temperament. It does the spirit good to try-”
“Wait a minute,” I said, holding my hand up to silence Zaine and turning, as much as I could to face him. “You’ve kidnapped hundreds of women against their will, and you still think that we’re the violent ones?!”
“Well, yes,” Zaine said, the puzzlement clear on his face. I scoffed and rolled my eyes. “What’s the matter? Do you mean to tell me that humans are…pacifists?”
“Well no, not exactly, but you don’t find this unfair at all? Hoarding humans for your own needs? Preparing us to breed with your kind like we’re some kind of…some kind of…”
I couldn’t think of a good object to compare us to, but Zaine seemed to be capable enough of filling in the blanks in his own head.
“Human, know your place,” he said, his voice suddenly cold. “This is not your planet, and these are not your ways. I don’t expect you to understand them, but I do expect you to honor them.”
“Because I have no choice,” I grumbled. “I know.”
Zaine and I grew quiet. We didn’t speak again until we were near the entrance to the dining hall.
“It is only this way because of human warfare, and you would do well to remember that,” Zaine said darkly. “Your kind poisoned the Verian women. Made them barren! You’ve murdered hundreds of Verian children before they even had a chance to live! So excuse me if I don’t think it is all that unfair of us to make up for the deficit by using your bodies to incubate the unborn.”
The anger had left Zaine’s voice, but the sadness, the bitterness, was potent enough to silence me.
“I didn’t know…” was all I could say. Had humans really done all of that? No announcements had been made. Was that what the small woman in my cell meant by Project V?
But we were being shoved into the dining hall, and the conversation was forced to end. I marched to my designated table, my stomach rumbling involuntarily as I waited for the little Pelin men to carry out our plates of food.
But no matter how good the food was, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. I kept sneaking glances at Zaine, who was standing rigidly against the back wall of the cathedral-like dining room, his face drawn and sad. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of hopelessness. I wanted to make him feel better, but I couldn’t. And even more bafflingly, I wanted to apologize for the human tactic I hadn’t known about. But didn’t it mean we were that much closer to finally ending the war? Life could go back to normal if it did.
We hadn’t been informed of all the different strategies the armies on Earth had employed against the Verians. All we had ever been told was that they wanted to take over Earth because it was a resource-rich planet, and it was our job to defend it at all costs.
At all costs. According to Zaine, that meant making the Verian women barren. It meant murdering their children. And, it even meant sacrificing humans here and there to make up for human errors in judgment.
But that was what we had to do to survive. It was an attack. Everything we knew was in jeopardy, and we were at risk of losing it all to the Verians.
And yet, despite it all, I was feeling like an asshole, and there was nothing that I could do about it.